Tuesday, July 1, 2014

It Never Happened Again

It Never Happened Again
Sam Alden
Uncivilized Books

This is a new one from Sam Alden and Uncivilized books, collecting two stories, "Hawaii 1997" and "Anime."  I've seen "Hawaii 1997" up on his tumblr, but I'm not sure that I'd seen "Anime" anywhere else, so that was all new to me.

Sam Alden's pencil comics read like a memory that you have and you feel really strongly about, but the details aren't all there.  Like, you know the feeling that you're thinking of, and you remember certain things about this time and place, but everything just feels a bit fuzzy or out of focus.  I suspect that's largely due to the sort of impressionistic art style of his smudged pencil looking characters and the slow movement and sudden gaps in the timing and pacing of his comics.  Reading his comics in this collection feels like slipping in and out of consciousness while the world is happening around you.  It's got that day-dreamy quality to it, but both of these stories feel very real.  Would it be dumb to describe these comics as "shoegaze?"  Sam Alden's comics definitely remind of shoegaze music.

"Hawaii 1997" is the first comic in this collection.  It's about a young kid out visiting Hawaii (on a family vacation? a school trip?  I think the story is pretty vague about the exact circumstances, but that doesn't really matter) who meets and plays with a young girl on the beach at night.  The whole story has a loosely autobiographical feel, like perhaps this is a thing that actually happened to a young Sam Alden, but it carries with it a sort of dream-like quality that allows it to end on a haunting note.  The power of the ending reverberates through beyond even the events of the story, and into what you'd imagine the future would hold for its main character.  It has the resonance and weight of a formative experience, but the inherent dreaminess of the story allows you to wonder if it really happened the way you remember it happening.  The way I was reading it, it doesn't matter if it all happened exactly how you remembered it, what's important is that that feeling you get from your version of that memory is what remains with you.

Alden does some interesting things with his art and pacing in this comic.  He seems to take particular interest in light and shadow, and he's very skilled at playing around with creating negative space and  manipulating our perspective.  For the most part each page is two panels, giving each moment a very quick rhythm, but there's a sequence where Sam is chasing the young girl through some trees, and at that point it becomes one-panel pages, increasing the speed of the comic.  During this sequence of one-panel pages we see the nameless girl as Sam sees her: from behind, always running ahead of him, always out of reach.  Once again, the deeper meaning of this shift in perspective becomes more apparent when considering the consequences of the story's ending.  Sam will always be chasing this girl, a stand-in for a particular feeling, or a moment, or a place, or any number of things, not unlike Ahab's white whale.

"Anime," the next story in the collection, is about a girl named Kiki.  She's twenty years old, working as a tour guide, and saving up to go to Japan, where she thinks her life will improve.  Like "Hawaii 1997," "Anime" is set up with mostly two panel pages, keeping the pacing snappy, but it's the gaps in between each page that do much of the work with regards to making the story move.  Each page moves us to another scene, allowing time to quietly skip ahead, perhaps reflective of Kiki's desire to move forward with her life despite not really having all of the relevant details figured out.

"Anime" is the kind of story that may mean different things to the reader depending on where they're at in life.  Maybe I'm old, but I read Kiki as a someone carrying an underlying air of sadness and gloomy delusion about her.  The story begins with her father admonishing her for not having a plan, in part because it seems that most of the people that she knows from school are leaving town to go to college.  Kiki is stuck working her shitty job showing tourists around her little town, and on top of that it's not even like she's an exceptional tour guide or particularly passionate about it.  She's stuck with her job because she's convinced herself that it's all in service of her greater goal of going to Japan, where she believes everything will be easier for her and she'll fit in better with the people over there than with anybody in her own small town existence.

It becomes pretty clear that Kiki's belief in Japan being a life-changing paradise is unfounded.  Most of her experience is rooted in her love for Anime and teaching herself Japanese via some online courses.  It seems that she's bought into the common Anime premise of the main character (i.e. Kiki) being secretly special, and once that character is able to escape the shackles of their day-to-day existence (giving bike rides to tourists), they can unlock their potential and flourish.  And while that is an admirable and inspirational thing to believe in, Kiki doesn't seem to take into account that in lieu of magic powers or a secret powerful heritage, most people get by through hard work and dedication. Kiki seems to have no interests aside from watching anime and leaving her hometown.

It's a difficult thing, watching this girl believe so strongly in a plan that's just doomed to fail.  Once she gets to Japan, there is no new life.  There are no new friends.  There seems only to be a lot of aimless walking around and staying in to watch more anime, and it seems that Kiki realizes this in her heart.  There's  a sequence where she is in her room in Japan watching anime on her laptop.  Kiki takes off her glasses, then the panels focus on the anime playing, while off panel we see the sounds of Kiki sobbing to herself.

The story seems to end on a scene of ambivalence, as Kiki skips out on her flight back home and instead sits in a convenience store where an employee compliments her on her ability to speak Japanese.  Kiki smiles at the compliment, and for the first time in Japan, she looks happy.  I'd love to believe that the end is a happy new beginning, as Kiki finally gets her life started in Japan, and all she needed was a little encouragement, someone to believe in her in even the smallest way, but the cynical side of me sees this as some convenience store employee just being friendly to the tourist.  After all of this Kiki has made very few changes aside from the obvious change in location, and there's no way for us to know that her Japanese is any good anyway.  I mean, even if it is perfect Japanese, what is Kiki going to do out in Japan?  What is she even qualified to do, lead tours?  We've seen that back in her hometown -- she's really shitty at it.  So, while I'd like to believe she picks it all up and starts anew, we haven't gotten much in the ways of reasons to believe in her.

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